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Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Evolution of Fair and Equal

H/T to Jon Stewart

Whether we realize it or not, we are all part of the evolution toward full Marriage Equality.

That is not without its cost - human and financial.

Just the other day, I was thrilled - as I'm sure we all were - to learn that the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced a ruling that will ensure all legally-married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live, will be recognized for federal tax purposes.

Prior to the ruling, lawfully married same-sex couples were forced to declare themselves “unmarried” to file their federal income tax returns.  Furthermore, transfers of property, gifts and inheritances between same-sex spouses were taxed, unlike those between opposite-sex spouses – as was the case in Edie Windsor’s successful challenge to DOMA before the Supreme Court.  Even the health insurance benefits provided for a same-sex spouse were treated as taxable income, costing the average same-sex couple over $1,000 a year in additional taxes.

So, now you can live in Texas or Alamama or even New Jersey and get married in New York or Washington, DC or even Delaware and, at least in the eyes of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the IRS, your marriage will be recognized. Well, for federal tax purposes.

I suppose I should have expected it, but I'm amazed by how many emails and phone calls I'm getting from couples who live in states where Marriage Equality is not yet a reality who want to come to Rehoboth Beach, DE and get married.

I'm having wonderful conversations with couples who have been together for 5, 10, 15, 20 years who are excited and thrilled to finally - FINALLY - be getting married.

Yes, they want the legal protection afforded by marriage, but they are not rushing to have a civil ceremony performed a Justice of the Peace. In addition to the legal aspects of marriage, they also want the covenant they make to be "blessed" by the church.

I'm hearing themes in these conversations that a marriage conducted by a "person of the cloth" - whether or not in an actual church - also becomes an act of forgiveness and absolution from them for so many years of the church fanning the flames of prejudice and bigotry by using scripture to construct systems of oppression. 

I get it. I totally get it. And, we do just fine until they ask the question, "What is your fee?"

What I want - what I really, really want - to say is: "Well, when you total all the expenses - the wedding attire, the flowers, the photographer, the videographer, the reception with the open bar, the limo, and the honeymoon, etc., - factor in a good, old fashioned biblical tithe of 10% of the total and that will be the church's fee."

I know. I know. Not gonna happen.

What I do say is, "Well, it depends on what you want. If you want the ceremony in a church with organ music and communion, that involves a whole list of fees over which I have no control. You should also know that the date of the ceremony will depend on the availability of the church. If you want to have your ceremony on the beach, the various towns on the beaches of Delmarva require a permit and there is a charge for that. And then, separate from that are my requirements and fees."

At this point, I can hear them starting to get nervous.

Here are my requirements: First up, just to get this out of the way, I don't do weddings in a bar. For anyone - lesbian, gay or straight.

I understand that you may have met there and have romantic attractions to that place. That's fine. Have your reception there. Not your wedding. Not with me officiating, anyway.

Call me old fashioned, but I just can't get my head wrapped around the appropriateness of the location of a bar for a wedding.

That's usually not a problem. 

Here's the thing: I don't just "do" weddings. My perspective of a marriage at which I officiate is that it is the blessing of a sacred covenant that flows out of a relationship marked by mutuality and respect and equality and fidelity.

I like to have something of a relationship with the people for whom I'm about to bless the covenant they make. That requires a little bit of time. Not much. Two hours, basically. At a minimum.

To that end, I require a minimum of two premarital counseling sessions (more, if we can) in which we talk about relationships and vocation and covenants and how that all gets expressed in the symbolism of ceremony and music and the words of the vows.

In addition, I am required to know if either of the couple has been legally and/or canonically married previous to this marriage and to simply see their divorce papers. I also need to know if there are any dependent children from that previous marriage and to inquire if those children are being cared for in accordance to any legal agreements made at the time of the divorce.

If I'm doing a very simple ceremony on the beach or in a garden or a back yard, my standard fee for all of that ranges from $150 - $250, depending on the ability of the couple to pay.  That includes the minimum two hours of counseling, the development of the liturgy, the ceremony - including the homily - and, of course, travel to and from the ceremony.

If I'm performing the service in a church which requires coordination with the rector, the music director, the office staff who will produce the bulletin I put together on my lap top, the altar guild and the sextant, the fee is $350 - $500, again, depending on the complexity of the service and the ability of the couple to pay.

I don't think that's outrageous. Indeed, it works out to about $12-$15 per hour. Last time I checked, $15 was considered a 'living wage' - even for someone working at MacDonald's.

What's amazing to me is the push-back I've gotten from some couples - I'm sad to say, all of them lesbian - and most of them formerly (or still) Roman Catholic.

"One hundred and fifty dollars!" yelled one into the telephone. "All we want you to do is to say the words on the beach and be done with it. That's going to take you, what?, 10 minutes?"

Once again, I gently and calmly explain my philosophy and theology and requirements. It's not hard to tell that they aren't listening to a word.

All she heard was $150 for 10 minutes = Rip Off.

I've learned to wait for the next response. It's become predictable, "And you - a priest (the word drips with sarcasm) of all people - should know that women - especially lesbians - don't make the same salaries as men. You should know better! This is an issue of justice and equality!"

I try, as best I can, to remind them that I, even I, am a woman. And, didn't Jesus say that the worker deserves 'his' wages? (Luke 10:7 - I've got it memorized. Not that it makes any difference. They aren't listening, anyway).

I have tried the strategy of reminding them of what they are spending on the wedding and that I'd be willing to bet that my minimum fee of $150 is far less than the cost of printing the invitations and postage to their friends. That only seems to infuriate them more. So, I stopped trying that technique.

Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a lesbian couple from Jersey - formerly (but still, really, in their heart of heats) Roman Catholic, been together for 12 years - who want to get married on the Feast of St. Francis.  In the church. With music. And communion. The whole enchilada.  Even though, she said, that neither of their parental units would come to the ceremony because their priest told them that they would be participating in sin. (Whatta guy, huh?)

And, they were very clear that they wanted a woman to officiate. Indeed, she insisted on calling me "Mother" even though I was - and am - pretty clear that, except in very formal situation, I skip all honorific titles and prefer my baptismal name.

She asked "the fee question". I did my spiel. She had a pretty explosive reaction. We talked - well, I talked. She yelled.  It ended like this:

She (yelling): "Well, okay, but it's $150 and Not. One. Penny. More."

Me (calmly): "You know what? I can't do this. Not even for $500. It's not really about the money. Relationships are very important to me - yours and the one I have with you both. How about if I give you the names of some people who are licensed to officiate at marriages and you can talk to them?"

She (yelling): "Listen, we want our wedding in a church. We want what everyone else wants and has and gets. Who are you to deny us what we've been waiting all these years to have?"

You see where this was coming from - and going. Rejection experienced from biological mothers and "Mother Church" and "Rev'd Mothers" (even if we don't call ourselves that) all get mixed up in one messy ball of transference and projection.

Truth is, I've waived my fee - or reduced it substantially - for couples - lesbian, gay and straight - that are really having a hard time, financially. Given what I heard about this wedding, however, money was not the issue. It was merely the presenting, symbolic issue for lots of other, deeper issues that involve injustice and justice and oppression and a sense of entitlement.

I ended the conversation by saying that I thought she might want to take some time to carefully consider our conversation and talk it over with her partner-soon-to-be-wife. And then, if she wanted, we could talk again.

I don't know if that's going to happen. I hope she finds a way to see beyond the hurt and disappointment anxiety that has turned her into a lesbian "Bridezilla". 

We live in sure and certain hope.

We're all evolving in this business of marriage equality.

We're not out of the woods, but we're on the path.

We're not exactly in the desert, but we've not yet arrived at The Promised Land.

There's a reason the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years after they were released from bondage in Egypt. They needed that time - two generations - to forgive their captors and adjust to the idea of freedom and to formulate the standards and requirements - The Ten Commandments - of what it means to live together in community in covenant with God.

I suspect it will take God's Rainbow Tribe at least that long to forgive the church and understand what "fair and equal" means for everyone.

We live in sure and certain hope.


Brother David said...

I think that this is going to wear you down and all joy in it will be gone.

I suggest that you stop taking these calls and refer them first to a simple website were all of this is laid out. Then buried in the website, so that you know that they had to actually read the presentation to find the link, should be an opportunity for them to sign up for an appointment to call you (the call should be on their dime) if they are serious in continuing arrangements for a wedding. And then you know who will call and when the calls will come, at a time of day at your convenience that you have set aside to deal with each situation individually.

Only the serious will get that far and hopefully the bride or groomzillas will have weeded themselves out!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

That's actually not a bad idea, Brother David. I really think this is going to pass soon and very soon. We're just in the thick of the first rush of marriages after the IRS / Treasury Dept announcement.

It will settle down soon. And, honestly? This has not taken away the joy. I get it. It's all part of the evolution. It will be perfected in the doing. And, if it gets to be too much, I'll simply stop taking the calls.

You are very dear to me, my brother.

Op3 said...

I understand *exactly* what you're saying! As a church organist, I'm constantly dealing with couples who want every piece of music on the latest "Wedding" CD, despite the majority of it being far from acceptable in any kind of church service; and then for me to have the audacity (gasp!) to say "this is my fee" and it's more than the $35 that the "wedding planner" (usually a relative) has said is appropriate for 20 minutes of "doodling on the organ" - oh, the horror!!! (Sarcasm now turned off).

Seriously, tho - Like you, there have been times I have either returned the cheque or told the couple that this was a love gift for them if I knew that they were in tight times for whatever reason. And, like what you do, I invest time in listening, and then pastorally advising what is "meet and right" for such an occasion.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Op3 - I remember the "shock and awe" when one bride (heterosexual) wanted a particular song played for the processional ... "hymn". It was "Hallelujah". You know, the beautiful, heartbreaking song that Shrek made famous. The organist and I tried to get her to look at the lyrics. You know, like
"She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah"

And - "love is not a victory march
its a cold and its a broken Hallelujah"

She didn't care. She wanted what she wanted. The organist, bless his heart, refused to play it. She went to another church. They told her the same thing. She came back and picked another song.

Sometimes, pastoral care - especially during wedding planning - is a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah!

Jane Ellen+ said...

So, what I'm hearing is that some LGBT couples feel they have the same right to be self-centered, demanding and unreasonable as some straight couples. Perhaps that means we really are achieving marriage equality...?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yup. Just like normal people. We also sometimes get divorced. I know. Hard to believe, right?

Matthew said...

I can see both sides of this debate - not the money part - they should get a grip - but all the rest of it. I'm sure there are good theological reasons for all of it but if you've been together for years, are active in a parish and the rector knows you both personally and has for years, BUT you want to elope I just don't think it should be that hard or too many hoops. When my partner and I got married in Canada, the Anglican church there was no use at all - lots of bureaucracy. Even a call from our rector did not grease the skids. But the United Church had signs everywhere advertising gay weddings and basically said, "wanna get gay married? Stop in and we'll do it for you." my partner and I just wanted a simple ceremony with just the two of us (and maybe witnesses) on a Tuesday afternoon in the chapel. No music, no guests. The Anglican church made accommodating that reality difficult. The United Church was a piece of cake. We gave the officiant $250 which I though was a bargain and took him out for drinks afterwards. He got to know us after the ceremony over drinks - not before - because he trusted the word of our rector that we were good to go and had 12 pre marital counseling sessions back home. Given that people spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding, $500 seems like a bargain. We also did not have to plan our honeymoon around the wedding. In fact we did not even schedule it until we got there and the day before no less. We had contacted the minister before we left but because our travel plans were open ended' we were driving and did not know where we would be in a particular place' we kept it open. When we arrived we called him and he said, how about tomorrow afternoon and we said yes and it was wonderful. I would not have traded it for the world.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I, too, have done weddings without actually having done the counseling sessions myself, but I was secure in the knowledge that a trusted companion had. That's a very different situation than "former" RC's who want someone with some "mojo" to wave their hands and do "the magic". (I could be wrong but that's been my sense of what several of these women have been asking of me.)

I'm glad there are other clergy who will jump in with both feet, sight unseen, to accommodate folks like you. I'm not saying it's right or wrong. I just need to be honest with myself and true to my own heart. Otherwise, the service over which I preside wouldn't have any integrity, and that's just wouldn't be worth a thin dime - no matter what the couple were willing to provide for compensation.

Sextant said...

Interesting post, as always Elizabeth. I don't know whether to fall out of the chair laughing or to weep.

Hopefully Nevada will recognize same sex marriage soon. Couples will then be able to get properly married in a chapel by a person of the cloth. These chapels are really cool, they have neon outlined steeples and are available in many different themes and color schemes.

I admire your pluck and your demand for counseling and standards. I don't feel your requirements or fees are at all unreasonable.

BTW my wife and I are considering renewing our vowels (wait thats a e i o u and sometime y...gads I have no idea) er ah vows. What do you charge for a devout female Presbyterian Elder and a lapsed going to hell male American Lutheran now New Age Flake? We would only be looking for the minimal mojo hand waving magic ceremony. Although I was wondering if we could have a unicorn drawn carriage take us for a post wedding ride along the beach.

Incidentally my wife is going to hell also. Her parent's minister, who broke off from the United Presbyterian Church over ordaining women (this was years ago), told my father in law that my wife would be going to hell for assuming a man's position in the church. As you say what a guy, huh?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tell ya what, Sextant - you pay for my travel (at lowest cost) to Nevada, put me up in a room of my own in your house or someone you know, feed me twice a day - plenty of fruits and veggies and some protein - promise me a glass of wine with dinner and one after, and I'm yours.